Abundant Hospitality by Deacon Sally Zeigler (first published in “The Colorado Episcopalian”, Fall & Winter 2008)

Eastertide 2007 was cold with a little snow — a bad time to be homeless. The congregation of Grace and St. Stephen’s, Colorado Springs, was indeed out in the cold following the seizure of the historic Tejon Street church when its rector joined the Diocese of Nigeria and changed the locks on the buildings. The generosity of Colorado College and a great surge of adrenaline supported this parish through Palm Sunday and Easter at Shove Chapel but the graceful college chapel was always over-booked and was never intended to be home base to a congregation’s varied activities.

Music has always been a crucial part of the worship and spirit of Grace and it was the musical community that came to the rescue. When The Rev. Michael O’Donnell put out a plea to the downtown churches for a shelter for his flock it was First Christian Church (Disciples) with its strong community musical program that answered immediately. The organists of the two groups, Deke Polifka and Carol Wilson, had played together in the past and so the doors were opened and an invitation offered.

It’s hard to imagine the anxiety and uncertainty that surrounded Grace’s group that met with Pastor Gaylord Hatner to survey the proposed refuge. Architecturally the building was vastly different with a magnificent organ behind the Holy Table and the choir facing the congregation. Instead of the shadowy Gothic heights of Grace, First Christian was bright with white paint and glowing stained glass windows high above. The entries to the church were far from the sanctuary which changed the feeling as hallways instead of a narthex led people in from the street. Not only was there no sacristy, there had never been wine, sacramental or otherwise, in this place where Carrie Nation once preached! But the sense of welcome from the clergy and staff comforted the nervous outcasts and plans were made for the first Episcopal service.

That first Sunday the people from Grace began showing up before the second service of First Christian had ended. The Altar Guild had the borrowed chalice and goblets in large plastic tubs. The communion wine and wafers were carefully hidden in baskets covered with towels. The acolyte master struggled in with a load of borrowed vestments and Fr. O’Donnell said it was like planning a wedding — every week. The strains of the choir’s warming up under Deke’s direction was the only thing that seemed familiar that April day. And more than 200 people came that first Sunday at quarter to one in the afternoon. When the Disciples began to move from the sanctuary to the Fellowship Hall for their coffee hour the feeling of exile disappeared as the Episcopalians were greeted like old friends. “We’re so glad you’re here!” was heard repeatedly. When the Grace people tried to thank their hosts the answer we heard again and again was, “We thank you, we thank you for this chance to live like Christians in this community. We are grateful to you.”

As the prelude filled the church with glorious music a congregation that had felt dispossessed and frightened and lost knew that it had come to a safe place. The acolytes learned the new steps in a new place. The Altar Guild continued to carry their bits and pieces back and forth until a space for a small sacristy was arranged. A rack for the vestments was donated by a parishioner. The children’s library was lent to us as an office space. And every week more and more Grace people found their way to this new home at a new time.

There have been different customs for each group to learn and some have led to joint activities. Grace people have welcomed the chance to volunteer in First Christian’s Interfaith Hospitality Network and the donations to the Ecumenical Service Ministry have grown. The MOPs (Mothers of Pre-Schoolers) program is made up of young families from both churches. Vacation Bible School flourished in the same way with more families involved. The Disciples have been fascinated by our preparation of the elements for communion while the Episcopalians have had their eyes opened to the frontier history of the Disciples with their lay-led communion. There has been a sense of sharing at every level as Grace has learned to ask and receive help from generous hosts with ongoing gratitude.

It’s been 18 months together now and the honeymoon is still not over. What seemed like a tragedy that might lead to the end of a parish community has become a lesson in Christian hospitality. Both congregationsare stronger now than they were before with hearts and spirits strengthened by the grace of this new fellowship.

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~ by revdrmichael on July 5, 2010.

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